Missions to Be on the Lookout for during the 2020s

The 2020s will be a very exciting time for space exploration if the many missions proposed by space agencies and aerospace corporations materialize.

It's a new year and a new decade! And all around the world, space agencies, the commercial aerospace industry, and public space interests are hoping to spend it by sending new missions to space, bringing new instruments online, and achieving new breakthroughs.

As always, these efforts are intended to build on previous successes and failures, leveraging the breakthroughs and lessons of the past to push the frontiers of space exploration and science. In the process, they also hope to solve some of the mysteries that continue to dog astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists alike.

While there are far too many missions to cover, a number of them really stand out. Encompassing robotic landers, rovers, orbiters, telescopes, and crewed spacecraft, these missions will explore Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Moon, Mars, the outer Solar System, and the earliest periods of the Universe.

At the same time, they will gather data that scientists will use to address some of the most pressing and fundamental questions about existence itself. How has the Universe evolved over time? What is the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy? Is there life on other planets? Is any of that life located in our backyard?

With all that in mind, let's have a look at what missions are scheduled to take place in the coming decade. Keep in mind that missions that have not yet been approved for funding or are in development limbo will not be included. Here we go!

To orbit!

SpaceX has many exciting milestones planned for this decade, a lot of which have to do with their Starship orbital vehicle and the Super-Heavy rocket booster. This entirely-reusable super-heavy launch system is the culmination of nearly 20 years of development.

It is also central to Elon Musk's plan to reinvigorate space exploration and establish humanity as a "multiplanetary species." Last year, development progressed with the completion of untethered flight tests using the Starship Hopper and the unveiling of the full-scale prototype (Starship Mk. 1).

Unfortunately, in November of 2019, SpaceX suffered a setback when the Mk. 1 suffered a structural failure during a pressurization test. Undeterred, the company announced shortly thereafter that it would be continuing using their next prototypes (Mk. 3/SN1 and Mk. 4/SN2).

The first flight involving one of these prototypes is expected to take place between February and March of 2020. The first prototype of the Super Heavy booster is also expected to be completed by then.

The 2020s will also be a busy time for NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program, a human spaceflight program administered by NASA. Through this program, NASA has contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to provide transportation services to LEO and the International Space Station (ISS).

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These two companies will rely on their Crew Dragon (Dragon 2) and CST-100 modules to help restore domestic launch capability to the US, which NASA has been unable to provide since 2011 with the retirement of the Space Shuttle. These companies are contracted to supply six flights to the ISS by 2024.

By 2022, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) plans to send its first astronauts into space. This mission is known as Gaganyaan (Sanskrit for "Sky Vehicle") and will involve a largely-autonomous space capsule orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 400 km (250 mi) for up to seven days.

On Jan. 1st, 2020, ISRO chairman Dr. K Sivan identified the four astronauts who would be part of the mission. These astronauts will travel to Russia later this month to begin their 11-month training.

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China also has some big plans for Earth orbit, which include the construction of its Chinese Large Modular Space Station (Tiangong-3). This is the third installment in their Tiangong (lit. "heavenly palace") program, which began in 2011 with the deployment of Tiangong-1 followed by Tiangong-2 in 2016.

The construction of Tiangong-3 was originally meant to coincide with the retiring of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020. However, the completion date has since been pushed to 2022 while the ISS is expected to remain in service until 2030.

Related: All You Need to Know About The Chinese Space Program

Back to the Moon!

Perhaps the most anticipated missions to take place in this decade involve NASA's return to the Moon. These missions are part of what is known as Project Artemis, which will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era.

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The first mission, Artemis I - which is scheduled for November 2020 - will see an uncrewed Orion spacecraft sent into space and fly around the Moon before returning home. It will also be the first time that NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) will be making a launch.

Artemis II, scheduled for late 2022, will be the first crewed mission of the program. Here too, the mission will consist of a lunar flyby test that will test the systems of the Orion and SLS and develop expertise for the Artemis III mission, which will send the "first woman and next man" to the Moon.

This mission is currently scheduled to take place in 2024 and will be the first time that astronauts have landed on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Between 2025 and 2028, four more missions (Artemis IV through VII) are planned that will send more astronauts back to the Moon.

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A number of support missions will also take place throughout the 2020s in order to provide logistical support for these surface missions. In addition, NASA will launch the elements that make up the Lunar Gateway, which will be assembled in orbit.

This space habitat will provide additional support for the Artemis Program and will be intrinsic to NASA's long-term plans to mount crewed missions to Mars. Other space agencies and commercial space entities will also use the station to serve their missions to the lunar surface.

Missions to Be on the Lookout for during the 2020s
Timeline of the Artemis Program, Credit: NASA

And that's not all! While NASA is making its long-awaited return to the Moon, many other nations and commercial entities will be sending their own missions there. Some of these will be the latest in a series of groundbreaking programs while others will be historic firsts.

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For example, the ISRO will be sending their Chandrayaan-3 rover to the Moon this year, with a possible delay until 2021. This will be India's second attempt to make a soft landing on the Moon, the first attempt (Chandrayaan-2) having recently ended in failure.

China will also be sending the latest installments in its China Lunar Exploration (Chang'e) program. These are none other than the Chang'e-5 and Chang'e-6 missions, which will include a lander and a rover that will be tasked with obtaining samples for return to Earth.

Russia will also be sending numerous robotic missions as part of its Luna-Glob program. These include the Luna 25 lander, the Luna 26 orbiter, and the Luna 27 rover, which are scheduled to arrive at the Moon by 2021, 2024, and 2025, respectively.

Several more are expected to go before the decade is over, but these are still in development and are dependent on future budget environments. The ultimate purpose of this program is to explore the far side of the Moon around the South Pole-Aitken Basin in preparation for the creation of a robotic base.

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It will also set the stage for Russia sending cosmonauts to the Moon for the very first time, something that is tentatively scheduled for the 2030s. The first of these missions will involve the next-generation Orel spacecraft and a crew orbiting the Moon by 2025.

A number of private missions are also expected, which includes Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander and cargo carrier. This lander will either deliver materials to the southern polar region that will be used to help establish a lunar base or transport ice back from the Shackleton Crater.

The company also hopes to use its New Glenn rocket (a heavy-launch vehicle currently in development) to send this payload to the Moon. And of course, SpaceX also has plans for the Moon, such as using the Starship to mount the very first flight dedicated to lunar tourism.

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This is known as the #dearMoon project. It will see Japanese billionaire designer and artist Yusaku Maezawa and a crew of various artists flown around the Moon and back to Earth. The flight is expected to occur no earlier than 2023 and is intended to inspire artists and foster the Starship's development.

Musk also hopes to land the Starship on the Moon by 2022, followed by payload deliveries in preparation for the first crewed missions by 2024.

A number of commercial missions are also planned as part of NASA's Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program and Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program. These programs have resulted in NASA signing with several industry partners to provide logistical support in advance of the Artemis missions.

To Mars!

In this decade, no less than six space agencies will be sending exploration missions to Mars, many of which will leave this summer and arrive on Mars by early 2021. Of these, three will be rovers, like the European Space Agency's (ESA) long-awaited ExoMars 2020 rover (aka. the Rosalind Franklin rover).

Missions to Be on the Lookout for during the 2020s
The NASA Mars 2020 rover's instruments, Credit: NASA

This mission is a collaborative effort between the ESA and the Russian federal space agency (Roscosmos). It will deliver an ESA-developed rover and Russian surface platform to Mars to help in the ongoing search for signs of life (past and present) on the Red Planet.

NASA will be using the same launch window (July-Aug. 2020) to send Curiosity's sister mission to Mars - the Mars 2020 rover. Once there, both of these rovers will use an advanced suite of scientific instruments to drill and scoop samples from the surface and subject them to analysis.

The Mars 2020 rover will have the added task of leaving some of its samples in a cache, which will be retrieved by NASA's proposed crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s. The astronauts will then bring these samples back to Earth to analyze them more closely for signs of biosignatures.

Then there's China, which will be sending its first rover to Mars, known as the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover - aka. Huoxing-1 (HX-1). This orbiter and lander/rover mission will also explore the Martian surface to search for life and characterize the Martian environment.

Then you have the orbiters that will be headed to Mars this summer. First up, there's the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) plan to send the Hope Mars Mission. This will be the very first mission sent by an Arab nation to another planet and will consist of an orbiter that will study Mars' atmosphere.

Mangalyaan-2 mission, aka. Mars Orbiter Mission-2 (MOM-2). This mission will launch in 2024 and carry on in the work of its predecessor, studying and characterizing Mars' atmosphere. According to a recent interview, a lander and rover element will also be included.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is also going to be sending an orbiter and lander to Mars -the Martian Moons Exploration (MXX) mission. In a slight twist, the orbiter will be exploring Mars' moons, Phobos and Deimos, while the lander will collect a sample from Phobos to bring back to Earth.

The outer Solar System

Beyond the Earth-Moon system and Mars, the space agencies of the world also have their eyes fixed on some very promising targets within the Main Asteroid Belt and beyond it. The goal of these missions is to improve our understanding of how the Solar System evolved and maybe even discover life beyond Earth.

For example, in 2022, NASA's Psyche spacecraft will begin making its way to the Asteroid Belt to explore a metallic asteroid of the same name. Scientists believe that this asteroid is actually the remnant of a protoplanet's core that became exposed after a massive impact knocked off its outer layers.

The study of this object is expected to yield a great deal of information about the history of planetary formation in our Solar System. Speaking of which, in 2023, the OSIRIS-REx mission is expected to return to Earth carrying samples obtained from the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Bennu - which will yield similar information.

Lucy, and (like Psyche) is also part of NASA's Discovery Program. This mission will launch in 2021 and spend the next 12 years studying these asteroids to learn more about the history of the early Solar System and the formation of the gas giants.

In June 2022, the ESA's JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) will set out for Jupiter to visit three of Jupiter's largest moons - Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. All of these bodies are thought to have interior oceans, and Ganymede and Europa are even thought to be habitable.

The probe will arrive in 2029 commence exploring Ganymede by 2033, which is its primary focus. Once there, it will search for possible signs of life (aka. biosignatures) on its surface. It will be the first probe to study a moon other than Earth's Moon.

NASA will also be sending the Europa Clipper to Jupiter around this time to look for signs of life. This mission is tentatively scheduled to launch in 2025 and will take 3 to six years to reach Europa. Once there, it will spend the next three years studying the surface of Europa for biosignatures.

If one or both of these missions are successful, it will be the first time that humanity has found compelling evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

...and Beyond the Infinite!

This decade will also see several next-generation telescopes take to space to study cosmological phenomena. These will follow in the footsteps of missions like the Hubble, Compton, Spitzer, Chandra, and Kepler Space Telescopes. Equipped with the latest in optics and instruments, they will enable all kinds of scientific missions.

These include finding more exoplanets, characterizing their atmospheres and potential habitability, observing planets in formation, studying the outer Solar System, measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, observing the first stars and galaxies, and searching for life beyond Earth.

In 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) - the result of many years of collaborative work between NASA, the ESA, the CSA, and the STScI - will finally launch. This infrared observatory will have vastly improved resolution and sensitivity over its predecessors and enable a broad range of investigations.

In 2022, the ESA will launch the Euclid mission, which is intended to map out the geometry of the Universe in the hopes of improving our understanding of Dark Matter and Dark Energy and the role they play in cosmic evolution.

This will be followed by the launch of the ESA's Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars (PLATO) in 2026. This telescope will search for potentially-habitable exoplanets by monitoring up to one million stars for signs of planetary transits.

And by 2025, NASA also hopes to have the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) in space. Combining a wide field of view with the latest in spectroscopy and coronographic technology, this telescope will have the power of about 100 Hubble Space Telescopes.

Meanwhile, back on Earth!

And that's not all! There are also a number of next-generation facilities and observatories here on Earth that will commence operations in the 2020s. These will vastly improve our understanding of the Universe and the laws that govern it.

For instance, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is currently working on the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) in Chile. Building on the success of the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), this telescope will begin collecting light in 2025 and will combine the latest instruments with cutting-edge methods.

In 2027, the TMT International Observatory plans to commence operations with the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), located on Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. This telescope remains a controversial project, given that it is built on a site considered to be sacred by the native Hawaiin people.

In 2029, the Carnegie Institution for Science (CIS) plans to unveil the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. Like other extremely-large telescopes, this facility will combine large mirrors, adaptive optics, and the latest in data-sorting to observe more of the Universe than ever before.

In 2027, another fascinating observatory - which will connect telescopes in South Africa and Australia - plans to collect its first observations. This is the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a next-generation radio telescope that will probe the Universe in the non-visible spectrum.

With stations located across an area at least 3,000 km (1,900 mi) in diameter, this array will the highest resolution images of any radio observatory to date. This will allow it to study a wide range of cosmological phenomena, such as the cosmic "Dark Ages", Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs).

By 2024 (at the earliest), the international collaboration known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), will be adding another facility to their network. This is the Indian Initiative in Gravitational-wave Observations (IndIGO), located in central India.

With the addition of new facilities, scientists will be able to study gravitational waves with greater accuracy, which is likely to lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of supernovae, the formation of black holes, and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

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These are just some of the many, many missions, campaigns, and new facilities that are expected to become a reality during this decade. And the scientific returns that they promise to deliver are sure to be immeasurable.

In fact, they are likely to revolutionize a number of fields of study and answer some enduring questions. Such as:

  • How the Solar System formed and evolved
  • If there is life on other planets or bodies in the Solar System
  • If habitable planets exist elsewhere in the Universe
  • How the Universe evolved since the Big Bang
  • What the first stars and galaxies looked like
  • If Dark Matter is real (or if its the result of exotic physics)
  • Why the Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate

With so much in store, one thing is for sure. The 2020s will be an exciting time to be alive! 

Further Reading:

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